by Timothy Sandefur
The greatest story of freedom in American history isn’t the Revolution, but the abolition of slavery. That effort included not just our bloodiest war, but a profounder commitment to fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence—a commitment which still stands ahead of us as a star to guide our path. The tyranny of slavery was vastly worse than that of George III, the odds against victory were longer, and the wounds inflicted by the war much deeper. Yet for that reason, the triumph was more glorious.
Juneteenth—now a holiday in 45 states—commemorates the day on which news of emancipation arrived in Texas, and it’s become a day for celebrating the end of slavery. Although this day is especially dear, and rightly so, to black Americans, it should go without saying that it isn’t just a holiday for one race, but a day on which all of us should celebrate our country’s liberation from the cruel, inhuman, demeaning institution that contradicted our national creed.
In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that “America is literally unimaginable without plundered labor shackled to plundered land,” but the reality is the opposite: not only is America easily imaginable without such evil institutions as slavery and racism, but our best citizens, from the abolitionists to the civil rights protestors, have imagined it that way, and have devoted themselves to making the dream a reality. What America is really unimaginable without, is equality. Plenty of nations have had, and still have, slavery. What sets us apart—what America cannot be imagined without—is our fundamental creed that “all men are created equal.”
In 1871, speaking at Arlington over the graves of Union soldiers, Frederick Douglass said it best: “If now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage, if the American name is no longer a by-word and a hissing to a mocking earth, if the star spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.”
America should forever be proud to be a refuge and a beacon in a world where slavery is still a fact of daily life. Consider the story of Arizonan athlete Guor Mading Maker. Born in Sudan, he was enslaved during the hellish civil war there, and escaped, only to be enslaved a second time. After he managed to flee again, this time to Egypt, he spent two years seeking entry into the United States. When at last it was granted, he attended Iowa State University, and after graduating with a degree in chemistry, moved to Flagstaff. There, he trained to run in the Olympics. But he refused to compete under the Sudanese flag, because, he said, that “would be betraying my people.” So in 2012, he was allowed to compete under the Olympic flag, instead. He ran also in the 2016 Olympics, and earlier this year, he became an airman in the U.S. Air Force.
Now he is preparing to compete in the 2020 Olympics—this time, under his new flag.
America is nothing without the story of freedom—just rocks and water and trees, like all other places in the world; pretty, no doubt, but every land has its resources. With freedom—that thing we can’t imagine her lacking—she is far more. That’s because liberty gives life to lifeless things. Liberty, indeed, is life, for without it we’re just automatons, reacting to outside forces and incapable of imagining a better world. The evil of slavery lies in its attempt to reduce living, free human souls to the status of mere objects, to brute entities incapable of imagination. But when we read the stories of people like Douglass or Maker—or countless others who have imagined a better world, and have escaped bondage to claim their lives as their own—we’re reminded of what we should celebrate on Juneteenth: the indomitable humanity forever ready to blossom forth in freedom.
Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation and holds the Duncan Chair in Constitutional Government at the Goldwater Institute.